Monday, March 27, 2017

The Worst Book on Tolkien Ever Written?

So, there are many contenders for the worst book ever written on Tolkien. There are biographies that make up events that never happened. There are source-studies by those who can't tell credible evidence from casual resemblance. There are people with bees in their bonnets who think that because something deeply interests them it must have interested Tolkien too, despite the lack of any evidence thereto. Some are pedants inflicting a particular jargon on the reader and some have agendas, wanting to recruit Tolkien to shed a little shared glory on their cause.  And there are a few who are just plain crazy.

This is really not surprising: with so many books on Tolkien coming out over fifty years and more (by my estimate I have roughly two hundred on my shelves, and that's not counting the books by Tolkien himself), there are bound to be a few bad apples. But to be so egregiously bad as to stand out takes some doing. And stand out E. Michael Jones's TOLKIEN'S FAILED QUEST (2015) certainly does.

What can you say about a book that faults Tolkien for not being racist enough?

Jones' book, TOLKIEN'S FAILED EPIC, is an e-book (really a chapbook) unavailable, so far as I cd tell, in print form. His thesis is that Tolkien's work fails because while Tolkien  borrowed most of his symbolism and motifs from Wagner, he downplayed and diluted the anti-Semitic message inherent in his source materials.  Or, to put it another way, he thinks that in writing THE HOBBIT, Tolkien  attempted "a corrective re-write of Wagner's anti-Semitic Ring cycle". But since Jones approves of that anti-Semitism, he concludes that  'The legacy of Tolkien's philo-Semitism is unsolvable artistic problems, leading to an ultimately incoherent book'. Or again, 'Tolkien denied his intellectual debt to Wagner because familiarity with Wagner exposed the incoherence of his own writings.'

It does not help that Jones reads Wagner as purely a socio-economic tract (e.g., "In Wagner, the Tarnhelm symbolizes the invisibility of the creditor class in a capitalist society"). That Wagner was a composer whose given medium was music seems never to have occurred to him.  Jones also expects his reader to already be familiar with, and agree with, his (somewhat incoherent) economic agenda (mostly he just rattles on about the gold standard).* Sometimes his prejudices and preconceptions prevent him from seeing what's actually in the text he's trying to impose his views upon. Thus he takes the reference in THE HOBBIT where Thorin talks about the good old days when they didn't need to work as farmers to feed themselves and instead had more time for mining and metalsmithing and crafting: this, in Jones' eyes, is a sign that dwarves, and Jews, are lazy. Again, Jones is quite open in his racism, describing the aftermath of the dwarves' loss of their homeland in the opening of THE HOBBIT movie as "they had to endure the biggest insult of all, they had to work for a living, something alien to the Jewish race". Just in case we don't get his point, he goes on to quote Shakespeare and Aquinas on the "Jewish aversion to work". Similarly, the death of the Master of Lake Town is attributed to "The Aristocracy [being] corrupted by its addiction to Jewish usury and gold".

Jones' book ends on an unexpected and nasty note, as he abandons Wagner and Tolkien alike for a blast of pure anti-Semitism: "The solution to the current economic crisis is the same solution to every other economic crisis of the past 500 years, namely, the elimination of usury. Once usury is eliminated from the economy, those who have profited from it -- the Jews and the modern day Cahorsins -- must make restitution. They must return their ill-gotten usurious gains to the people from whom they stole them. We're talking here about the transfer of roughly $15 trillion back into the pockets of American citizens".

All in all, perhaps it's not surprising that E. Michael Jones is listed by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a purveyor of hate speech.

In the end, it's rather to Tolkien's credit that he doesn't pass muster from such a dodgy perspective.

It's good to fail sometimes, when the standard being judged by are so appalling.

--John R.
current reading: THE GREY MANE OF MORNING

*But then his whole piece is fairly incoherent, with its references to Fatima, and Franco (a "so-called fascist") and Aquinas and Roy Campbell and Baron Rothschild and some guy who was head of the Bank of England in the 1930s and the Prince of Hesse-Cassel, among others. 


Unknown said...

By criticizing Jones, you're just making a fool of yourself. He's written books on everything from Hawthorne to Bauhaus. But my guess is you'll never stop reading him, now that you've gotten a taste.

John D. Rateliff said...

Hugh B. wrote "my guess is you'll never stop reading him, now that you've gotten a taste"

Dear Hugh.
Well, it's possible I suppose, but I wdn't count on it.

Yves Vannes said...

In notes, Tolkien himself said he meant the Dwarves to represent the Jews.

Their unbridled lust for gold awakens a "dragon" and results in the destruction of a "village".

He saw the First World War as at least partly driven by bankers and their greed. In the UK, "Banker" usually means Jew. It's been that way since the Elizabethan period...Thus The Merchant of Venice, The Jew of Malta, etc...

John D. Rateliff said...

Hi Yves.
Actually, it was in an interview that Tolkien said his depiction of the dwarves drew on the great Jewish craftsmen of medieval Iberia and on the fierce warriors of Biblical times (think Joshua and the Judges such as Samson). It's clear he wasn't thinking of modern real-world peoples.
--John R.

Gravedigger said...

About LOTR, I'd agree. But the Hobbit always struck me as a highly allegorical work. No one really comes off well except for the druid and Bilbo. This seems to hold for a lot of young writers after the First World War. Robert Graves comes to mind and Hemingway.

There's no real systematic evil in the Hobbit except in tangential hints. It's more about the shortcomings of various groups and the way they blundered through a war that didn't need to happen.

Ex/ The Elves are the French, a fickle, disruptive and often uncooperative and resentful ally.

John D. Rateliff said...

Dear G.
I'd say that reading would be an example of applicability, not allegory.

Unknown said...

Embarrassing commentary. Your essay is the WORST essay on Tolkien I have read.